Daniel Hannan: Clever, inquisitive and, crucially, independent, Charles Moore would be the perfect BBC chairman

30 Sep

Daniel Hannan is a writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

Charles Moore is everything a BBC chairman should be: clever, inquisitive, independent, humane, well-read, polite, patriotic, broad-minded and generous to his critics. During the golden age of newspapers – roughly the years between the new technology brought in following the Wapping dispute in the late 1980s and the rise of online journalism in the early 2000s – he led the editorial field. His only rival, though their styles were very different, was The Daily Mail’s Paul Dacre, now being mooted as the next head of Ofcom.

In the interests of full disclosure, I have worked for both men. I don’t know Dacre well, but even slight acquaintance is enough to reveal the secret of his success, namely an unparalleled ability to speak to and for ordinary people. At a time when other newspapers were going online or throwing themselves on the generosity of patrons, Dacre’s Mail remained both popular and profitable. A newsman to his fingertips, he filled the editor’s chair with his restless energy and curiosity. With almost all media struggling to make money, he is exactly the regulator we need: fair-minded, diligent and committed in his bones to freedom of speech.

I know Moore rather better, having spent seven years working for him at The Daily Telegraph. He was, as any Telegraph writer of that era will attest, a wonderful boss. Patiently and intelligently, he improved every section of the paper, from the sports pages to the weekly children’s pull-out section. He always stood by his people – he once went to war against the Prince of Wales’s office because it had treated a Telegraph photographer badly – yet he was impervious to flattery. The newspaper he edited reflected his voracious interests. He cared a great deal about accuracy, and hired several Labour-leaning lobby correspondents – perhaps on the principle that a Leftist reporter on a Rightist paper would always strive to be objective.

The BBC stands to gain enormously from his involvement. As he did at each of his newspapers, he will take a benign interest in every aspect of programming, from comedy to cookery. He will ensure that the Corporation gets a sympathetic hearing in Downing Street. He will steer it through a landscape changed utterly by the rise of YouTube and Netflix. He will revive that sense of integrity and high-mindedness that we might loosely call Reithian.

This, naturally, is not the view of most Beeb staff. Have I Got News For You, the quiz show which arguably set Boris on the path to Number 10, Tweeted that if Moore became chairman, the BBC wouldn’t last another five years. One staffer described his mooted appointment as “the Corporation’s Stalingrad.”

In part, this is simply a howl of anguish from a Leftist establishment used to getting its way. It is striking how many BBC figures cite Moore’s Euroscepticism and Toryism as ipso facto disqualifications – even though the country voted for Brexit and then elected a Conservative Government. Implicit in the criticism is the notion that someone on the Right can’t be disinterested – or, more precisely, that the soft Left positions we associate with the Beeb are statements of objective fact. The ordinary viewer might think the BBC has certain prejudices – feminism good, austerity bad; immigration good, Israel bad; EU good, Trump bad – but to its editors, these are not prejudices but truths.

Moore’s critics display the close-mindedness that they falsely suspect in him. In fact, you won’t find a less partisan man. Moore started out as a Liberal back in the pre-SDP days when that party was still broadly liberal. His liberalism rested, and rests still, on a readiness to question assumptions, to think things through from first principles, to spot what others have missed. Successive Conservative leaders came to fear his pen more than that of any Labour-supporting editor.

His BBC critics, naturally, won’t be convinced by anything I write. A readiness to dismiss views from outside their tribe is part of their problem. But, if he gets the job, they will come to appreciate him.

For the BBC, as it is currently run, is obsolete. The problem is not that it is biased or expensive or out-of-touch. The problem rather, is that it is not feasible to fund a state broadcaster through taxes in an age of streaming. Yes, the BBC’s partiality has weakened it by alienating conservatives. But even if everyone agreed that it was run by the best, wisest and most neutral public servants, it would still not survive in its current form.

Some senior figures within the BBC recognise that change is coming, and want to take ownership of that change. The corporation, after all, has huge advantages. No broadcaster has a stronger global brand. BBC programmes are watched on every continent. Much of what it does would be commercially viable under any dispensation.

People are creatures of habit. Thirty years after privatisation, BT was still by far the largest supplier of landlines, with nearly 40 per cent of the market. Without the licence fee, plenty of viewers will still want to watch Strictly and Planet Earth and Eastenders. The BBC could more than hold its own as a subscription channel. Yes, some parts might be less viable than others – I never understood, for example, why the BBC felt the need to get into local radio, an area amply served by private suppliers. But there is every reason to believe that a more commercial BBC could become more popular as well as more efficient.

The way to ensure that that doesn’t happen, of course, is to resist all reform, to be dragged kicking and screaming into each new change.

A wise BBC will turn technological change to its advantage, aiming to emerge as a more successful and original content-generator while recovering its former place in our national esteem. No one would help it achieve that goal better than Charles Moore.

Daniel Hannan: Voters tend to get some things wrong, but the big things right. So it is with the Internal Market Bill.

16 Sep

Daniel Hannan is a writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

As usual, the public has reacted to Westminster’s hysterics with an amused shrug. Lawyers and diplomats, pundits and politicians, are in a frenzied rage about the Government’s announcement that it might violate the Withdrawal Agreement. In some cases, the rage is confected; but in most, it is genuine.

The country as a whole, though, takes an altogether more relaxed view. Where politicians get bogged down in detail, voters tend to see things impressionistically. They sense – correctly – that international law is protean and often disputed.

Countries are forever being charged with infracting this or that treaty. The EU, for example, is in breach of several trade agreements, ranging from its groundless bans on overseas agricultural produce to its illicit Airbus subsidies. It also frequently violates its own treaties, sometimes on issues of enormous consequence. The eurozone bailouts, for example, were patently illegal, not just in the sense that they had no basis in the European treaties, but in the sense that they were expressly prohibited. No one in Brussels tried to claim otherwise. Rather, they pleaded raison d’état.

So when British voters see Eurocrats fainting like so many affronted Victorian matrons, they just don’t buy it. They know that Brussels has negotiated in a bellicose spirit from the start. They sense the difference in tone between Michel Barnier and negotiators from, say, Australia or Japan, who are uncomplicatedly keen on maximising mutual gains.

Where Labour and a handful of Tories see a violation of international law, most voters see the people who have always backed Brussels doing so once again. No doubt John Major and Tony Blair think of themselves as distinguished elder statesmen cautioning their country against error; but I’m prepared to bet that most people’s reaction will be, “Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?”

For what it’s worth, I think most of the Bill’s opponents have decent motives. Some, no doubt, are driven by personal rancour, or by a reflexive opposition to anything the Prime Minister does. Some are still sore about Brexit. But many have genuine worries about international law.

I happen to think they are wrong. First, the Bill itself doesn’t violate any laws: it merely creates an emergency mechanism by which the most damaging aspects of the Northern Ireland Protocol can be prevented. Second, the bits that Brussels dislikes would come into effect only if, despite all its promises, the EU failed to agree a trade deal. Third, even if it came to that, there is a strong argument that not taking preventative action would constitute a worse legal breach than taking it – in other words, that suspending some aspects of the Protocol would be a lesser infraction than violating the principle, affirmed both in the Belfast Agreement and in the Protocol itself, that Northern Ireland’s status cannot change without its consent.

This last point barely featured in the debates, but it strikes me as elemental. If there is a clash between legal obligations – if, that is, we can only apply aspects of the Protocol by breaking other laws, such as Article VI of the 1801 Act of Union – then we should give  priority to our domestic constitutional order. This is not some Powellite assertion of British exceptionalism. It is a widely-shared principle upheld by, among others, the EU.

For example, in its 2008 ruling on the Kadi case (involving a Saudi businessman whose assets had been frozen), the European Court of Justice reiterated its doctrine that “a treaty can never enjoy primacy over provisions (including protection of fundamental human rights) that form part of the constitutional foundations of the Union.” That is, of course, precisely the argument that the Attorney General has made in a UK context.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that lots of people have pondered ECJ precedent and concluded that the EU is applying a double standard. Rather, in a shrewd and largely instinctive way, people have sussed that Britain faces an ill-disposed and hypocritical negotiating partner which is making unreasonable demands.

That, ultimately, is why Boris Johnson will get his Bill. It’s not just that he is right to have acted as he has (though he is). It’s that the country is with him. The Internal Market Bill has lined up everyone against the Government – except the general population. That split – radical lawyers, Europhile politicians, unelected peers and woke actors versus everyone else – is one with which Tory strategists are comfortable.

This is emphatically not an argument for always following public opinion. Apart from anything else, we are a fickle species. We demand the strictest possible lockdown, complete with curfews, and then complain about the downturn. We ask for increases in public spending, but we will react with fury when the money runs out. The last thing we want, when confronted with the consequences of our own choices, is to be reminded of what we asked for. Gavin Williamson could no more say “but you all told me to close the schools” Tony Blair could say “but you all supported the Iraq invasion when it was launched”. As Dryden put it, “Crowds err not, though to both extremes they run”.

Governing by opinion poll fails in its own terms. But, over the cycle, people generally get the big calls right. Not always; but more often than the elites. Brexit was a case in point. So is the Internal Market Bill.

Daniel Hannan: Does the army really still need tanks? Or the navy aircraft carriers? Or the rest of us, the Trident system?

2 Sep

Daniel Hannan is a writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

My late father commanded a tank in Italy in 1944. He rarely mentioned it (except, somewhat illogically, when reassuring my mother during car journeys that she could trust his navigation skills) but I always thought it must have been a wonderful thing to do. What a privilege to direct that mighty mass of metal, that extraordinary combination of armour, mobility and firepower.

So my immediate reaction on hearing that tanks might be phased out was one of grumpy and nostalgic scepticism. Tanks were declared obsolete after both world wars, yet they turned out to be vital to the liberation of Kuwait in 1991. They played a role in subduing Fallujah in 2004, and have been used more recently in the Russia-Ukraine war. Are we truly prepared to dispense with what, for a hundred years, has been the best way to hold (or seize) ground?

The question needs to be put. We are, as a species, irrationally change-averse, and never more so than when we work for a state bureaucracy. Some of the most inexcusable wastes of money in British history happened because generals, defence contractors and Ministry of Defence officials were unwilling to admit that a shiny new project was already passé.

Think, for example, of the Eurofighter, designed to dogfight Soviet MiGs over the skies of West Germany, and already redundant many years before the first wings were welded. Again and again, that white elephant came up for review – and, each time, the Defence Secretary of the day took the politically easier decision to throw good money after bad.

A Minister who suggests phasing out any part of our established capability will get a reputation for being too clever by half and ignoring the professionals. It is no use pointing out that Ministers are there precisely to resist producer-capture. In any argument between a politician and a craggy-faced retired general, the public will always back the general.

Still, it is the politician’s job to ensure that a necessarily limited defence budget translates into maximum force. So let’s ask the question directly. In an age of irregular warfare and increasingly powerful guided missiles, do we need manned armoured mobile guns?

Iraq and eastern Ukraine were exceptional in that their terrain happened to be ideal for tank warfare – respectively desert and steppe. Tanks are of less value in cluttered or inhabited lands. They may be (as both the exceptions again demonstrate) useful against other tanks. But how useful are they against advanced missile systems? Or, indeed, against low-tech guerrilla forces?

Israel’s offensive against Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006 exposed the tank’s limitations. Expensive Israeli armour was hammered by cheap IEDs and low-tech missiles. Israeli generals have absorbed the lessons of that campaign. Have their British counterparts?

Actually, yes – at least, to a degree that many will find surprising. Overall, our Armed Forces are in the world’s top five; but, measured by number of battle tanks, we barely scrape into the top 50, well behind Greece, Jordan, Morocco, Romania and the UAE. It makes sense. We are an island nation which has traditionally relied on sea-and air-power. When we do engage on the ground, it is often out-of-area and asymmetric.

So what should we do with our tanks? We can’t put the question off. Whether or not tanks as a concept are outmoded, there is no question that our own main battle tank, the Challenger 2, is showing its age. Since it went into service in 1998, the Americans and the Germans have completed two major upgrades, the Russians five. Our chief armoured vehicle, the Warrior, is even rustier, essentially unaltered since the Cold War.

Given that big changes are overdue, now is the moment to ask whether tanks give us a decent bang for our buck. If we decide that they do – if there is felt to be no other credible way of holding territory – then we should think radically about what the new version might be.

Might we, for example, make a substantially lighter vehicle, easier to airlift and deploy at distance? Might we, in doing so, reduce the manning requirement – or even remove it altogether, relying instead on remote guidance?

I have picked tanks because leaks suggest that they are up for review, but the same logic applies across the board. The most expensive items in our conventional repertoire are our two new aircraft carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales. They cost around £6 billion to build, with a similar price tag for their aircraft.

What else might we have done with such a colossal sum? Instead of floating runways which launch manned planes which in turn launch missiles, might it be more cost effective to cut out the aircraft, and simply launch the missiles (or the reconnaissance drones) directly from the ship? Obviously that would imply some diminution in capability, but did we properly consider what else we could have done with the savings, or were we, as with the Eurofighter, beguiled by the sheer vastness of the thing?

Again, simply to raise the issue is to invite an angry reaction from good and patriotic Service personnel whose job is to consider capacity rather than opportunity cost. So politicians rarely do it. Still, any defence review worth the name needs to put hard questions. Do we need a parachute regiment, for example? There are occasions when we need to drop special forces, but how likely are we to need to make a mass airborne deployment?

And, since I’m deliberately raising the most difficult and provocative issues, how about Enoch Powell’s objection to the nuclear deterrent – namely that, since we would never actually use it, it was money down the drain? Paradoxically, more limited nuclear weapons, capable of battlefield use, might be a more credible deterrent.

There may be good arguments, in all these cases, for sticking with something close to the status quo. But let’s hear those arguments without preconditions. Let’s have a no-holds-barred strategic review which sets out to ask how Britain can best defend its interests given the vertiginous acceleration of military technology.

Many of our postwar strategic assumptions are overturned by hypersonic missiles, weapons of extraordinary stealth and destructive power. At the moment of impact, a hypersonic missile is travelling at 1200 miles per hour, and its kinetic force is equivalent to three tons of TNT. Russia, China and the United States are engaged in a hypersonic arms race which makes a nonsense of much of what we used to think about air superiority, armour and the defence of naval vessels. A total overhaul, in short, is both necessary and urgent.

We should, in reassessing our defence needs, look at our allies’ capacity. It seems likely, for example, that in any major engagement, we would be on the same side as the United States and other Anglosphere nations. It makes sense to co-ordinate our procurement, while still ensuring that we can act independently in a Falklands-type situation. What we can’t afford is to cling to current practice for reasons of political convenience.

My father’s regiment, the North Irish Horse, was reduced, between the wars, to a single officer. It rapidly expanded after 1939 to deploy in Tunisia and later in Italy. It exists today only as a squadron in the Scottish and North Irish Yeomanry. That is what I call flexibility. Our Armed Forces are extraordinarily good at preserving traditions, but they are also supremely adaptable. It is this second quality, in the end, that wins war

Daniel Hannan: Politicians can’t win. When they don’t give us what we want, we protest. And when they then do, we carry on.

19 Aug

Daniel Hannan is a writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

The exam fiasco is a neat demonstration of what is wrong with our administrative state, our media culture and, frankly, our own double standards.

A bad thing happens. We demand, in an angry but unfocused way, that Something Be Done – in this instance, that schools be closed. When confronted with the consequence of our own demand – i.e: that there is no way to be fair to exam candidates other than to let them sit the papers – we howl with protest.

We don’t blame ourselves, obviously. Nor do we blame those who made it impossible for schools to reopen: teachers’ unions, hostile councils and, indeed, reluctant parents. Nor yet do we blame the people who actually drew up and applied the grading system. No, we focus all our anger on the politicians – the same politicians whom we insisted should “step back and trust the professionals”, should “let teachers get on”, should “stop using our kids as a political football”.

It’s the same story every time. Voters demand that technical agencies be free from political interference, but then rage at ministers when those agencies screw things up. Thus, in an inversion of Stanley Baldwin’s quip about the press barons, ministers have responsibility without power.

There is, for example, an unwritten media rule that, whenever failures in procurement by Public Health England or the NHS are reported, these bodies must always be called “the Government”. The verbal trick allows us to draw a distinction between public sector officials (who are presented as undervalued heroes) and politicians (who are vaguely assumed to be malevolent as well as incompetent).

No one suggests that ministers were directly involved in the procurement failures, any more than that that Gavin Williamson personally drew up the grading algorithm (which drew on input from hundreds of interested parties, including the teaching unions, who were perfectly happy with it). No one needs to point to anything specific, because politicians enjoy the automatic disbenefit of the doubt.

It has long been a convention in this country that ministers carry the can – a good and necessary one. The problem is when ministers have had nothing to do with the can until it is thrust into their hands.

Let’s go back to those grades. Most of us will have come across cases of individual injustice. A young friend of mine, who was top of her year, had had 15 A*s at GCSE and was predicted 4 A*s at A-level, knew as soon as she learned how the algorithm had been drawn up that she was likely to be penalised (one of her predicted A*s was in further maths, so she understands how these things work).

Her school – not an underperforming inner city comprehensive, but a successful private girls school – had had two dud years in two of her subjects, and she knew that no computer would award her the grade that she would have achieved in the exam itself. Sure enough, the algorithm did its work and she missed her university offer.

People in her situation were rightly furious. A computer model had deleteriously altered the course of their lives. Those on the other side – of whom there must have been a great many, since results overall rose this year – naturally attributed their good fortune to themselves rather than to the system. That is how these things work.

When ministers stepped in to redress the grievances of the losers, they created new losers. They reversed years of work against grade inflation and gave many students artificially high marks. The losers thus include those who took their exams last year or will take them next year, those who took them this year and would have done well without the boost, and, not least, universities which now face an administrative nightmare.

As Phil Taylor reminded us on this site yesterday, the algorithm had in fact worked in most cases: “Indeed, 88 per cent of students had got their first choice university place on results day. The number of 18 year olds going to university was at a record high, as was the number of disadvantaged students set to attend”.

My point is not that the U-turn was wrong. My point is that all our options were bad once we had made the calamitous decision to close schools – despite the fact that there has still not been a single identified case of anyone catching Covid-19 from a child anywhere in the world. The time to complain was then, not now.

I know I have banged on a great deal about the hopelessness of our quango state, but the past six months have made my case for me. It’s not just the obvious incompetence of PHE and NHS administrators. It’s every unelected agency, from an immigration service unable to deport illegal migrants to our super-woke police constabularies.

In a powerful article for The Atlantic, Tom McTague argues that “Britain was sick before it caught the coronavirus.” His article, which sets out in pitiless detail our various cock-ups, has had a huge impact, reminiscent of the gloom provoked by the valedictory despatch of our Paris ambassador, Sir Nicholas Henderson, in March 1979, which unflinchingly set out the mess that Britain was then in.

In fact, though Sir Nicholas didn’t know it, Britain was on the cusp of a national revival. Its administrative state was failing, but the country as a whole was not. In the 1980s, free to pursue their ambitions, the British outperformed every European economy and resumed their place at the world’s top tables.

Now, as then, we should avoid the mistake of thinking that the failure of our bureaucracies denotes a general national failure. Going into the Covid-19 crisis, we were a prosperous and successful country, leading the world in biotech and artificial intelligence, higher education and the audiovisual sector, legal and financial services. We face a specific and remediable problem, not a general decline.

The good news is that, even before the pandemic hit, this Government was determined to tackle the quangocracy. Back in January, that might have seemed a slightly recherché and eccentric priority. Not any more.

Politicians should indeed carry the can – over the electoral cycle. Ministers must by now be aware of how rusted and useless the machinery of state has become. They have four years to fix it.

Daniel Hannan: Sweden settled in for the long haul, and now doesn’t need to worry about a second surge

5 Aug

Daniel Hannan is a writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

You know who isn’t worried about a second wave? Sweden. Covid cases may be rising worldwide but, in that stolid, sensible monarchy, they are down nearly 90 per cent from peak. “I think to a great extent it’s been a success,” says Anders Tegnell, the country’s chief epidemiologist. “We are now seeing rapidly falling cases, we have continuously had healthcare that has been working, there have been free beds at any given time, never any crowding in the hospitals, we have been able to keep schools open which we think is extremely important, and society fairly open.”

Uncomplicatedly good news, you might think. Yet the overseas media coverage of Sweden is brutal. Its fatality rate is endlessly compared to the lower rates in Norway and Finland (never the higher rates in Italy or Britain). Many commentators sound affronted, as though Sweden were deliberately mocking the harsher prohibitions imposed in most of the world.

The nature of their criticism is telling. To condemn Sweden for its relatively high number of deaths per capita suggests a worrying inability, even after five months, to grasp what “flattening the curve” means. In the absence of a cure or vaccine, an epidemic will end up reaching roughly the same number of people. That number may differ from country to country for all sorts of possible reasons: age profile, weather, family living patterns, openness to international travel, incidence of obesity, past exposure to different coronaviruses, differing levels of genetic immunity.

But it won’t be much affected by lockdown measures. To put it at its simplest, flattening the curve doesn’t alter the area underneath the curve. No country can immobilise its population indefinitely; so all we are doing, in the absence of a medical breakthrough, is buying time.

The UK lockdown was intended to string things out while we built our capacity. “It’s vital to slow the spread of the disease,” said the PM in his televised address of March 23. “Because that is the way we reduce the number of people needing hospital treatment at any one time, so we can protect the NHS’s ability to cope – and save more lives.”

Sweden judged that it could manage to keep its hospitals functioning with only relatively minor restrictions – and it was right. With hindsight, it seems likely that the UK could have got away with a similar approach. Not only did our Nightingale hospitals stand largely empty throughout; so did many of our existing hospital beds. The expected tidal wave, mercifully, did not come – probably because the rate of infection, worldwide, turned out to be lower than was first feared.

No one should blame public health officials for erring on the side of caution. Still, it ought to have been clear by late May that we could start easing restrictions. We knew, by then, that the infection rate had peaked on our around March 18 – that is, five days before the lockdown was imposed.

But, alarmingly, liberty turns out to be more easily taken than restored. The easing of the lockdown was achieved in the face of public opposition: British voters were global outliers in their backing for longer and stronger closures. The media, never having internalised what flattening the curve meant, failed to distinguish between preventable deaths and deaths per se.

In March, according to the official minute, “Sage was unanimous that measures seeking to completely suppress the spread of Covid-19 will cause a second peak.” As far as I can tell, it has never rescinded that view. The question is not whether there will be some post-lockdown uptick in infection rates – releasing an entire population from house arrest is bound to lead to an increase in all sorts of medical problems, from common colds to car crashes. The question, rather, is still the one we faced in March, namely can we be certain that our healthcare capacity will not be overwhelmed.

Given what we can see in Sweden – and, indeed, in developing nations which lack the capacity to isolate their teeming populations – it seems pretty clear that we can.

Yet the original rationale for the closures has somehow got lost. Commentators now demand the “defeat” of the disease, and hold up league tables of fatality rates as if that were the only gauge by which to measure the performance of different countries. Covid, like everything else, has been dragged into our culture wars, so that one side revels in excessive caution, ticking people off for the tiniest lockdown infractions, while the other argues that lockdowns don’t work at all.

The case against the lockdown is not that it was useless, but that it was disproportionate and had served its purpose long before it was eased. Confining an entire population is bound to have some impact on slowing a disease – any disease. The question is how high a price we should be prepared to pay.

Sweden seems to have got it right. It banned large meetings and urged people to stay home where possible. But, beyond one or two targeted closures, it broadly trusted people to use their nous. Because it judged coolly at the outset that there would be no immediate vaccine, it never got into the ridiculous position of being unable to restore normality in the absence of one. It settled in for the long haul, understanding that the disease would be around for a while, and that acquired immunity would be part of the eventual solution.

The figures for Q2 growth are published later today. Yes, Sweden will have suffered. The distancing measures taken by most Swedes, and the global downturn, will have taken their toll. Still, my guess – judging from retail figures, credit card activity, employment rates and other extant data – is that Sweden will comfortably have outperformed most European countries, as well as avoiding the costs of furlough schemes and massive borrowing.

It may turn out, when all is said and done, that the international variable was not the eventual death toll so much as the price exacted from the survivors.

Daniel Hannan: ​Against all logic, we are more nervous about Covid-19 now than we were in March

22 Jul

Daniel Hannan is a writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

The news that Oxford University might have a Coronavirus vaccine ready as early as Christmas is wonderful. British readers may be forgiven a dash of patriotic pride at the thought that this country, the country of Edward Jenner, the country that discovered vaccination (or at least, as Matt Ridley shows in his book on innovation, the country that developed and popularised the idea, innovation generally being incremental and collaborative) is once again leading the world. I suspect the chances of a mutually beneficial UK-EU deal have just improved.

The sad truth is that only a vaccine (or a cure) now offers the prospect of a return to normality. Lifting the lockdown has led, in the event, to a disappointingly small uptick in activity. Our city centres remain deserted, our workforce furloughed. I had allowed myself to hope that we were chafing against these restrictions, that we stood like greyhounds in the slips, straining upon the start. But most of us have responded to the reopening by putting our tails between our legs and whimpering.

It is worth dwelling, for a moment, on why this should be. There was far more social and economic activity on the eve of the lockdown than there is now. Yet, logically, nothing has happened during the intervening four months to make us more nervous than we were then. In late March, as we watched the horrific scenes from Lombardy, we were bracing for an epidemic that might overwhelm our healthcare system. In the event, it wasn’t just our Nightingale hospitals that stood empty; so did many ward beds.

We now know that healthy young people are extremely unlikely to experience severe symptoms, and that transmission through casual contact is rare. We have recently learned that our death rates are not as bad as they had seemed: incredibly, Public Health England was counting everyone who had died having had the coronavirus as a Covid fatality – even if they made a full recovery and then died of something else.

In the week which ended on July 10 (the last for which we have figures) total deaths were in fact six per cent below the average of the previous five years. Sweden, which imposed only light restrictions and trusted to people’s common sense, has not seen the apocalypse that was widely predicted in March. Yet we are bizarrely more reluctant to get back to work than we were at the start.

The explanation does not seem to be primarily medical. People normalise even unprecedented situations with astonishing rapidity. If their new routine is relatively painless – staying at home on something close to full pay, for example – they may be in little hurry to change it.

Staying at home is, like anything else, habit-forming. Clinical psychologists explain agoraphobia and related strains of anxiety partly as a negative feedback loop. Something frightening happens to you outside, so every time you go out afterwards you feel nervous, which means that you remember the sensation of being outside as intrinsically unpleasant, making you even more nervous the next time, and so on.

While it would be silly to suggest that millions of people are suffering from clinical anxiety, it may be that a mild form of the negative-feedback syndrome is tipping people against going back to commuting. Four months of being bombarded with the message “stay home, save lives” could hardly fail to have an impact.

The prospect of a vaccine makes it even less likely that we will try to work around the disease, Sweden-style. Employers who might have reopened their offices over the coming weeks are now more likely to hold out in the hope of a definitive solution.

That will prolong and deepen our recession. Life has not returned to London as it has to, say, Lisbon or Copenhagen. Our eventual recovery will come too late for those firms that have been forced into insolvency. For many, the “job retention scheme” (as the furlough is formally called) is a cruel name for what is, in fact, a form of deferred redundancy.

If, in a best-case scenario, a vaccine is found this year, our problems will still be just starting. Months of closures will be followed by years of joblessness and decades of debt. And if the vaccine turns out not to be effective, this week’s false hope could simply put off a modified return to work.

I don’t like playing Cassandra. As long-standing readers will know, I am generally an exuberant optimist in the Steven Pinker/Matt Ridley/Johan Norberg mould. But we need to understand that the decisions we have taken over the past 16 weeks will have consequences for many years.

I’m not sure everyone has yet made the connection. I hope I’m wrong, but I can imagine Piers Morgan and other commentators who demanded the longest and strictest lockdown pivoting to complain about high unemployment. Sadly, we are about to find out.

Daniel Hannan: What broken windows can teach the Chancellor about mending the economy

8 Jul

Daniel Hannan is a writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

Anyone can spin the spending taps open. It’s screwing them back again that is the problem. Once vast subsidies have gurgled down the plughole, it becomes almost impossible to resist demands for an extra spurt here or there. Sums that were considered colossal in February now seem, next to the hundreds of billions of pounds spent on quantitative easing and the furlough scheme, almost trivial.

Don’t get me wrong. The Coronavirus outbreak was an exceptional event that called for an exceptional response. Almost every small-government type I know acknowledged that there was a one-off case for interventions. The worry is that these interventions will turn out not to be one-offs; that, rather as happened after 1945, the electorate has come to expect a higher level of state intrusion, so the dial won’t return to where it was.

There was a practical and moral case for helping businesses through the lockdown. The practical case was that keeping a firm’s heartbeat going is cheaper, in the long run, than letting it expire and requiring a completely new business to be launched afterwards. The moral case was that the government had a duty to rescue its own victims: if an otherwise profitable enterprise, such as a pub or a theatre, was closed by law, it had a claim to compensation.

So far, so uncontroversial. But what when the restrictions are lifted? Should the state carry on supporting sectors that have been adversely affected? Should it, for example, continue to subsidise pubs or theatres, even when they are allowed to operate again, on grounds that their customers are staying away? What about sandwich shops hit by the shift to working from home – a shift that may be permanent? Or charities hit by a general drop in donations?

What of payouts that are not directly to do with the lockdown? It was striking, for example, that the clamour for more free school meals was far louder than the clamour for schools themselves to reopen in full. Demanding money on someone else’s behalf is always satisfying and, in current circumstances, the demands are hard to resist. When we are spending a hundred billion on the furlough scheme alone, who is going to cavil about £19 million for poor kids?

The dynamics of that decision illustrate, in microcosm, why demands for higher spending end up being granted. Those who called for higher spending were described as brave and principled, their opponents as selfish and stingy.

In fact, there is nothing brave about saying “Listen – hear me out on this, I know it’s controversial – we should do more to feed poor kids”. That position might be justified, but expressing it requires no courage. Indeed, by far the bravest thing I saw during the controversy was a Tweet by the kind and clever Therese Coffey, gently correcting Marcus Rashford’s claim that people might be cut off by water companies for want of means. Therese pointed out that that would be illegal, prompting a pile-on of the nastiest kind from an online mob who did not want facts to interfere with their self-righteous rage.

Few MP want to be accused of being “mean” or “heartless” (to quote the adjectives chosen by Sir Michael Wilshaw, the former head of Ofsted). They know that, however absurdly, they will be judged as if it were their own money they were trying to save, not taxpayers’.

Yet the economic facts remain. Britain’s output is down by more than a quarter. So far, the hit has been taken largely by business but, eventually, it will be felt by everyone: students, public sector workers, pensioners and, not least, those the poet calls “your children yet unborn and unbegot”. I wish it weren’t so. But we can’t defy economic gravity by intoning “Our NHS heroes deserve a pay rise!” or “Supporting the arts is an investment in the future!” or “The government needs to create more green jobs!”

Yes, fiscal loosening is appropriate in the aftermath of an economic catastrophe. Yes, it makes sense to bring forward some spending, especially on infrastructure. But the only way out of this mess is economic growth, and the way to get growth to cut taxes.

Think of it like this. The government can put more cash into circulation by spending more or by taxing less. The argument for the second is that the money will be more wisely directed by individuals on the ground than by civil servants drawing up project criteria. Britain’s immediate priority, as the furlough scheme tapers out, must be to get businesses investing and hiring. That means cutting corporation tax, stamp duty, national insurance and capital gains tax.

Why tax cuts rather than grants? Partly because grants are blunt instruments, expensive to administer and prone to unintended consequences. Mainly, though, because of what the nineteenth-century French economist Frédéric Bastiat called “ce qu’on voit et ce qu’on ne voit pas” – what we see and what we don’t.

Bastiat famously gave the example of broken windows. Replacing a shop window generates lots of activity: the shopkeeper pays six francs to the glazier, who can then spend that sum on new shoes, meaning that the cobbler now has more to spend and so on. Why, then, can’t a country make itself rich by hiring boys to go around smashing panes of glass? Because, Bastiat says, of the unseen costs: the shopkeeper could have invested the six francs on something more productive, the glazier had to turn down another customer to make time to fix the window and so on.

It’s an argument a ten-year-old can understand, yet we seem unable to internalise its logic. When a government takes money out of the economy to spend on, say, green jobs, it is creating unseen costs. We might regard those costs as justified in the name of environmental protection; but they are still costs. Subsidising jobs is no more a route to growth than smashing windows.

Who, though, is prepared to make that case in the current mood? Who will argue for balanced budgets and low taxes? The lockdown may be ending, but I fear our economic woes are just beginning.

Daniel Hannan: The police. Not institutionally racist, but institutionally woke.

24 Jun

Daniel Hannan is a writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

The police have had an unusually bad lockdown. They began by being bossy and officious, ticking people off for buying luxury items or walking too slowly in parks or even (in one incident in Rotherham that was caught on camera) for being in their own garden. But when Black Lives Matter took to the streets, they promptly forgot all about the restrictions. Far from ordering protesters to disperse, they looked on as mobs carried out flagrant acts of vandalism.

In Bristol, a superintendent refused to prevent criminal damage to the Colston statue because “we know that it has been an historical figure that has caused the black community quite a lot of angst over the last couple of years.” (Perhaps so – but it was hardly his call to make, was it?)

In London, officers were pulled out of Parliament Square, allowing vandals to fall on the statues there – including that of Abraham Lincoln, commemorated for having freed America’s slaves. Last weekend, we reached a new low, as a Met officer, in effect, pleaded with people to break the law in a considerate manner.

“First and foremost we want people to be safe, and would encourage you to stay at home,” said Commander Alex Murray. “However, if you feel compelled to come and have your voice heard, we would say please remain socially distant, we don’t want people to get ill; and, more than that, please do not engage in any violence.”

Demonstrations, of course, were banned – a fact the Met clung to obsessively when protesters were complaining about the lockdown. But, when a different set of protesters started to demonstrate about the atrocity in Minneapolis, police chiefs were reduced to asking people who felt “compelled” to break the law to do so non-violently. It was hard not to think of Chief Wiggum from The Simpsons: “Can’t you people take the law into your own hands?”

The problem of the PC PC – the politically correct police constable – goes back to the Blair years, and there can be something quite funny about heavy-handed attempts by rozzers to be woke. But there is nothing funny about the consequences. In 2011, the Met refused to impede a crowd engaging in mass looting in Tottenham, because the pillage had theoretically begun as an anti-racist protest. Images of officers standing by while people smashed their way into shops flashed around the country and, the next day, there was looting across British cities.

To call the police institutionally racist, these days, is wide of the mark. Yes, there are individual racists in uniform: with more than 120,000 police officers in the UK, some bad behaviour is statistically inevitable. But, far from being institutionally racist – that is, being an institution where racism is a norm – the police, these days, are institutionally woke, in the sense that their leaders elevate race relations above what ought to be their core functions, such as protecting property, securing public order and enforcing the law impartially.

To be fair, the police are operating within a society which has taken to applying a different test when it comes to self-proclaimed anti-racism. This is most obvious in the tone of our broadcasters. When BLM thugs turned violent, the BBC produced the ludicrous headline, “27 police officers injured during largely peaceful anti-racism protests in London”. The following week, when a different set of thugs turned violent, it had the more conventional headline, “London protests: more than 100 arrests after violent clashes with police.”

Our state broadcaster is faithfully representing the double-standard of our intellectual elites. Epidemiologists who back the lockdown in all other circumstances say it’s fine to violate its terms as long as you are demonstrating for BLM. Conservationists who normally insist on protecting monuments declare that it is fine to remove statues. Academic institutions that are meant to defend intellectual rigour concede that, if someone’s feelings are hurt, accuracy no longer matters.

These are the political waters in which our coppers are swimming. The Met is answerable to the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, who condemns the ludicrous statue defenders while refusing to condemn BLM violence – a failure which, in normal times, would disqualify him from office.

But these are not normal times. As sometimes happens when there is a plague (or at least the perceived threat of a plague) we are gripped by a form of end-of-days cultism, which brooks no dissent. Intimidated by the self-righteousness of campaigners, few politicians dare to step into the path of the mob. MPs from all parties feel the need to qualify their condemnations of violence with vague support for the demonstrators’ aims. Several of them literally bend the knee.

To the best of my knowledge, not a single Police and Crime Commissioner has spoken out, either against the excessively heavy-handed way in which the lockdown is enforced for everyone else, or against the refusal even to pretend to enforce it on the protesters.

Police, protesters, politicians, pundits – all are caught up in the general madness. Indeed, everyone seems to be going through a millenarian spasm. Everyone, that is, except the general population, which remains as level-headed as ever.